One of the most distinctive sounds of spring in Gibraltar is the morning and evening ‘screaming’ calls of the Swifts, coupled with their impressive aerial display of agility and precision flight, it makes for quite a spectacle.

These small, agile birds winter in Africa, south of the equator, but travel north to breed in spring, as far north as Finland, with Gibraltar and Spain being the most southerly breeding areas.

We are lucky to have such a healthy breeding population in Gibraltar as, sadly, the UK has seen a 53% decline since 1995. This is thought to be due to a decline in nesting sites. The trend for renovating of old barns and houses or new buildings and not taking into account nesting sites could be one of the issues but is also possibly the result of a decline in the insect populations the Swifts feed on.

Young Swifts are often found on the ground, either having wriggled out of the nest or been pushed out inadvertently by an over-eager sibling. It can be difficult for the Wildlife Park staff to assess a bird’s health and its chances for survival. The first 24 hours are critical. Adult Swifts spend the majority of their life on the wing, only landing to breed. An injury such as a broken wing is devastating to these birds and sadly such individuals would have to be euthanised.

The Wildlife Park has been receiving young, helpless, and sometimes injured birds for many years. Any injured wild animals are first taken to the Gibraltar Vet Clinic for assessment. Those with a good clean bill of health will be sent back to the wildlife team to be reared. Over the years the wildlife park has helped many wild birds and reared quite a few young birds too, the majority of those are young Swifts during the summer breeding period.

At present, due to a lack of space, the AWCP team share their tea room and locker room with all manner of animals, from the new arrivals in quarantine (a minimum of 30 days for most species new to the collection), to any of the park animals requiring treatment and rescued local wildlife, mostly fledglings and chicks.

9am – The varying selection of animals found is often referred to affectionately as the ‘cabin crew’ and are the first to be attended to by staff at the start of the day. A quick health check is given while any heating/lighting required is switched on (or off), before the keeper proceeds to health check the rest of the park’s animals. At this point, any ravenous individuals will make themselves heard and one of the staff will administer their first feed. Young birds will be fed a minimum of 5 times a day. In the past, staff have been known to take very young Swifts home to ensure they have the best chance of survival, but once their growth is seen to be consistent and they are feeding well, they are safe to be left overnight alone. At times the AWCP has been known to rear up to six fledgling Swifts at one time. “Once they are all feeding well and used to regime, it’s barely more work to have more than one mouth to feed, it’s also possible to ‘train’ them to poop on demand!” says park manager, Jess Leaper. In the nest, the baby Swifts would shimmy to the edge of the nest to defecate, in order to keep the nest as clean as possible, this is, quite possibly, occasionally the cause of their fall from the nest.

Savannah monitor lizard (c) Alma Leaper

12pm – Once the cabin warms up and the lights have been on for a while, a rather large, scaly member of the ‘cabin crew’ starts to work up an appetite. Savanna is an impressive four-foot-long Savannah (or Bosc) Monitor lizard. Unbelievably he lived his first few years in his teenage owner’s bedroom before she finally (and understandably) could not cope with sharing her floor space any more. A prime example of why it is important to consider all aspects of caring for an animal before taking an exotic animal on as a pet!

The AWCP have plans for a spacious enclosure for the lizard, but for now he is off exhibit and sharing a rather large proportion of the staff quarters. Savannah lizards require high temperatures most of the year and predominantly feed on large insects and some small mammal prey. Although Savanna generally is of good character, monitor lizards can deliver a powerful, bone crushing bite! Savanna is expected to be on exhibit in the park by the end of the year.

2pm – Fledgling sparrows are sadly also a common occurrence at the park. If there are no signs of injury, the keepers will rear them on a mixture of crushed insects and fledgling egg food. It doesn’t take too long for most young birds to adapt to their new carers. They soon start to wait eagerly for the next feed. Once they have graduated to feeding themselves, they are moved from the small holding box to a larger cage until they are fully feathered and able to fly from perch to perch. After a bit of practice at flying, most fledged chicks will happily fly off into the surrounding trees outside the park. They have been known to fly back to see the keepers for a few days afterwards but most adjust well to a free life around the AWCP and beyond.

Many birds are brought in by well-meaning members of the public who find them ‘alone’ and out of the nest. Ideally these birds should be helped to a nearby, safe platform away from danger and maybe watched for a while as it is highly likely that the parents are still feeding them. Fledglings are birds that have already left the nest but are fed sporadically by the parents until they can fend for themselves. They often don’t have great flying skills and some find themselves close to danger on the ground. The wildlife park urges people to resist the urge to remove them from the area. If the bird is deemed to be in immediate danger and has to be removed then please make a note of where it was found and check for potential sparrow parents. They have a higher chance of survival in the wild, fed by the parents than when reared in captivity.

3pm – Quarantine is an important preventative aspect to the care of zoo animals. Any animal new to the collection or a temporary visitor (wild rescues etc.) has to be treated to a strict quarantine protocol. This protocol protects the main park animal collection from any external pathogens. For animals entering the collection, it is also a period of time for them to adjust to the new surroundings and for staff to get used to their required husbandry. Quarantine can be anything from 30 days to 6 months, depending on the species and associated risks and or veterinary treatment required.

During quarantine, special protocols are followed by staff to limit any chance of cross-contamination, protecting the health of the individual and the health of the whole collection. If there are not enough staff to dedicate to quarantine animals then these animals will be dealt with after the main animal collection, to further reduce the chance of cross contamination.

The wildlife park currently has no separate quarantine area. Plans have been made to expand the current staff area to include quarantine and holding areas and small hospital area. This would also help to resolve the current cramped space the keepers have to share with the animals.

4.45pm – Final entrance for visitors to the wildlife park is 4.30pm. Just as in the morning, all animals are checked again before the park closes, enclosures are checked and secured and a member of staff will check the park for any remaining visitors. Before setting the alarm, the keepers will give the last and crucial feed to any fledglings in the cabin. Swift chicks are by far the easiest and quickest to feed, gladly gulping down a food-laden finger. Staff begin preparing the Swift chick mix in early summer, storing it in ice cube trays in the freezer in preparation for the inevitable influx of these helpless young birds. The most satisfying moment for all keepers rearing the chicks is when the day comes for release. Baby Swifts take around 6-7 weeks to fledge. The primary wing feather length (carpus to feather tip) must be at least 150 mm and preferably 160-170 mm at release. When the Swifts are ready for release, they tend to refuse feeding around 24 hours before and begin to flap around in the nest box, their bodies begin to vibrate almost in anticipation. When they leave their parental nest, they will take a leap of faith with no prior flying practice. This hair-raising event is replicated with trepidation by the keepers. Taking the Swifts to a high viewing point and allowing birds to launch themselves into the air. A nail-biting moment ensues as the birds seem to dip, fall and rise, whilst they find their wings, finally soaring into the air and joining their conspecifics in their stunning aerial displays over Gibraltar. A bitter sweet, but satisfying moment for any care-giver.

If you do find a baby Swift this summer, please do not attempt to feed it or give it water. Take it to your local wildlife center or veterinary clinic for expert help and advice.

Swift Awareness Week will run this year from the 22-30th June. For more information visit swift-conservation.org. To find out more about the AWCP and our work, visit awcp.gi or follow us on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook!

Swift Facts:

  • Swifts spend just 3 months of the year in Gibraltar, arriving in early May and leaving in early August.
  • They spend their winters well south of the Sahara.
  • Historically, Swifts nested in holes high in large trees. Today almost all Swifts nest in colonies under the eaves of old buildings.
  • They are monogamous, and the same pairs will breed together in successive years.
  • Swifts roost, feed and even mate on the wing, and are not thought to land between one breeding season and the next.
  • They are totally dependent on airborne prey and feed at a higher elevation than both swallows and martins.
  • Swifts have tiny feet and almost no legs, adaptations to their aerial lifestyle.
  • Adult Swifts can actually take off from a flat surface, though they rarely do so.
  • The Swifts’ closest genetic relations are the hummingbirds; they are not related to swallows or martins.